Flesh and bones on the corruption menu

Aug 1, 2023
Gavel inside labyrinth maze.

Spare a thought for the National Anti-Corruption Committee which has so many juicy cases before it that there is a substantial chance that it might have to pass on investigating some of the serious sources of potential corruption around the nation.

Not because it doubts the seriousness of allegations that have come to its notice, or the need for particular types of conduct to be brought to book. Even a division of responsibilities between the commissioners would not allow the time or investigative resources to get to the bottom of matters. From a position eight years ago when most politicians privately doubted that there was enough Commonwealth corruption to justify a corruption commission, government might soon have to consider alternative means to putting the ruler over potentially corrupt conduct. Perhaps by summary royal commission, or a new type of parliamentary inquiry.

At the moment, for example, there are serious questions being asked about alleged misconduct by Stuart Robert, when a backbencher or minister in the Morrison government. Some of the allegations have involved claims of mixing his personal interests and his public duties, of acting in effect as a lobbyist to ministers and departments on behalf of associates in businesses in which he is said to have an undisclosed interest. One of those associates, faced with the prospect of being called to answer questions by the senate, has departed the jurisdiction, indicating that he has no intention of returning. Bill Shorten, minister for government services, is armed with several reports about government contracts in which Mr Robert is said to have expressed interest, and has, under parliamentary privilege, been heavy handed with innuendo of corrupt conduct. Robert has now resigned from parliament, but no one on the Labor side of politics has expressed any interest in thinking that this should be the end of the matter.

Some might think justified an investigation focused on the integrity and probity of Robert himself. Robert was an activist minister responsible for a period for decisions in the Robodebt fiasco, was extensively criticised during the royal commission and may be one of those mentioned in the secret report passed on to the NACC and the AFP. But he also ran the National Disabilities Insurance Scheme while it was privatising its approach to service delivery. And he is accused of using his influence and access to help a consultancy company get government contracts. That includes suggestions that he was, in effect, getting kickbacks from contracts received.

Perhaps an inquiry could go wider rather than focus narrowly on Robert. There were contracts, some for billions, awarded without tender after ministerial interventions. In some cases, it was not obvious that the companies, particularly in the health area, were uniquely qualified to do the job. While urgency during the Covid period might account for some truncation of normal contract processes, the failure to have open and transparent tender processes invites questions about whether the Commonwealth got best value for money.

Are taxpayer dollars bribing Pacific officials?

Also in the procurements area is an array of contracts between immigration, later home affairs, and service providers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. It is now being alleged that some contractors used some of their money to bribe PNG and Nauruan politicians and bureaucrats. No doubt they had reasons of their own for wanting the goodwill. But the cynic might notice that the alleged bribery could well have been focused on buying the cooperation of foreign politicians and officials in Australia’s cruel scheme for asylum seekers who had arrived in Australian waters by boat. Perish the thought that the Australian government itself would stoop to bribe and corrupt politicians, even in such a notoriously corrupt neighbourhood. But if it did it would not be the sort of conduct that could be sheltered by the claim of national security considerations or claims of some veil necessary to preserve statecraft and the pursuit of the national interest. After all, the Australian parliament has explicitly legislated to ban bribes, kickbacks and other forms of corruption by Australian companies operating abroad.

It has been said that the AFP warned its then minister, Peter Dutton in 2018 that it was investigating corruption allegations involving one of the companies now accused of organising the bribery. This was when the contract between home affairs and the company was being re-negotiated. Dutton was minister for home affairs, but, properly, was not involved in the tender process. In that sense, no finger points directly at him.

But Dutton was hardly unaware that Home Affairs was under continual criticism, particularly from the Auditor-General. It was for mismanagement of contracts associated with the concentration camps. We were overcharged for housing, feeding and providing services to detainees. The successful contractors were sometimes criticised. One company that received a contract in the hundreds of millions was, for example, a $2 company headquartered on Kangaroo Island. The way that these companies performed their operations, including investigating allegations of crime, assaults and abuse of human rights, was tightly controlled by officials of home affairs. Likewise, the department seemed to keep tight reins on possibly suborned police in both PNG and Nauru, and on at least some of the foreign officials of those countries.

The curious thing about this long history of mismanaged contracts, and fabulous waste including costs of up to $400,000 a day to keep a detainee in appalling conditions, is that it seems to have resulted in no sanctions against any of the departmental officials involved. No official suffered for the suffering or the blind eye of foreign partners. Perhaps the department was given wide discretions from responsible ministers and politicians (including opposition politicians) because it was doing very dirty work on behalf of government. That indulgence could hardly have prevented agencies such as the public service commission or the department of finance working on tighter administration, competent management of public funds and better risk management.

Co-ordinated crime fighting and conflicts of loyalty

At the relevant time, the AFP was an agency inside the home affairs department. It is now under the Attorney-General’s umbrella. Strictly, it was, like ASIO, notionally an independent body. But the very rationale of having the AFP and ASIO inside home affairs was the expressed need to have bodies concerned with national security and terrorism more coordinated and singing from the same hymn sheet. A consequence was that home affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo attempted to “coordinate” police and security advice going to ministers. Another was the establishment of the paramilitary Border Force. And the creation, by Pezzullo, of his own very expensive little intelligence gathering operation, based on the assumption that no one else is guarding our borders. The “need” for other agencies to liaise with this private army has consumed a considerable amount of extra money that intelligence operations have gained over the past five years.

Even before all this coordination, the AFP was being widely criticised for having a deeply politicised leadership and behaving more like a department of state than an independent law-enforcement body. It would seem amazing if the AFP did not brief senior officials at Home Affairs about its investigation of a company about to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars from the department.

The Robodebt inquiry has passed on a secret report to the NACC about possible breaches of the law by ministers and senior officials in devising, approving and maintaining a cruel and unlawful system against welfare recipients. Many involved are said to have been aware of its fundamental illegality, and to have sought to conceal that fact. I have remarked before that it is for the NACC itself to decide whether to pick up this brief, which might not naturally be at the top of its agenda. If it did, however, it would involve time and resources which would have to be taken from other projects.

Better suiting the NACC remit might be the corrupt management of government grant schemes to distribute for partisan purposes in marginal seats. These types of rort were well documented by the Auditor-General, Grant Hehir. They include the sports rorts affair, the railway station car park affair, and umpteen schemes administered by National Party ministers, some of whom have seemed to believe that a party in government can distribute the public purse by whim among the constituents they like. Over the years, some “pragmatic” players have admitted that it’s a bit grubby. But “everyone does it” and, they said, it was not actually illegal. One of those who did say that, Gladys Berejiklian, was embarrassed to discover that it is seriously corrupt and illegal. The reasoning used by NSW ICAC in finding this applies in the federal jurisdiction. If NACC wanted to hold some entertaining public sessions, it could give us a reprise of Scott Morrison, Christian Porter, Josh Frydenberg, Paul Fletcher, Barnaby Joyce and Bridget McKenzie insisting that we should move on, nothing to see here.

Alternatively, there is a whole world opening on the abuse by private sector consultants of knowledge gained by advising governments and government departments. The PWC scandals have enveloped other major consultancies and disclosed the farce of “Chinese Walls” and supposed institutional protections against conflict of interest. The AFP, one of the agencies supposed to be investigating improper behaviour, is itself hopelessly compromised by its own dubious relations with consultants. No amount of insulation or separation could unravel the problem. Conflict of interest is, after all, a matter of perception as much as reality.

And that is but a small sample of matters requiring early attention from those concerned with improving the quality, and the integrity of government. Already NACC staff are considering scores of suggestions coming from interested parties and the public. No doubt they are also scouting about for some current matters, touching this, rather than the last government. It’s a bipartisan project.

A part of the formula involves keeping everyone, all the politicians, and all the bureaucrats, terrified. All the time.

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